It has been decades since American motorists topped off their tanks with spare change, but a day when fuel could again cost $0.50 per gallon will come soon if the stars align for the nation to mate renewable energy with hydrogen.
“There are a lot of stakeholders that have to move in unison,” warns Charlie Freese, executive director-global fuel-cell activities at General Motors.
But if automakers, policymakers and power providers can pull off an orchestrated dance where future levels of mandated renewable electrical energy is turned into hydrogen for fuel-cell electric vehicles, drivers could be spending with penny jars instead of credit cards. Tailpipe emissions also would be a thing of the past.
Freese calls the scenario, which builds off data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a “no-brainer.”
But it will not come easily.
In addition to getting stakeholders to go all-in, advances and cost reductions must be made in large-scale electrolysis, a process where electricity is used to make hydrogen. Hydrogen storage must advance, too.
Longstanding stumbling blocks to FCEVs also must be addressed. Automakers such as GM, Honda, Toyota and Hyundai must bring to market affordable models that do not compromise the drivability and utility consumers demand in today’s cars and trucks. A widespread distribution network also must be installed, and the unevenness of current refueling processes will have to be ironed out.
Those hurdles, however, already have been addressed in the century-long rollout of the gasoline internal-combustion engine, Freese offers.
“This kind of situation has existed in the past,” he tells WardsAuto in an interview. “When the very first (ICE) got on the road, you didn’t have a place to refuel or nice roads to drive on.”
Early gasoline and diesel refueling pumps would be unrecognizable today, Freese adds, and equal doses of skepticism surrounded the ICE as the world converted from the horse and buggy.
“Now we’re at that point again, where there is a shift afoot and it requires a little bit of patience and a plan. And you have to stay true to your plan. You can’t give up after the first roadblock.”
That’s a pitch the industry has been making for a while. But the NREL, a government-owned R&D laboratory funded through the U.S. Department of Energy, offers hydrogen as a storage option for excess electricity, and the idea is fueling fresh optimism for FCEVs because it could knock down most of those longstanding roadblocks. It also would occur under a timeline that would give the nation a long runway to ramp up for the technology.
“When you have this (idea) to solve the infrastructure, supply and production problem for hydrogen, and then you have the fact that the vehicles that use it can be very transparent to the consumer, you have a situation where it looks like a no-brainer,” Freese says.
Craig Scott, national manager-Advanced Technologies at Toyota, says the Japanese automaker is a big believer in the concept. In fact, Toyota researchers refer to it internally as the “hygrid.”
“It is not a panacea for current problems,” Scott says of a hydrogen infrastructure in its infancy presently. “But it will be necessary for a widespread rollout of (FCEVs). There is a lot of potential here.”
The Hygrid Game Plan
Renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and hydropower, accounted for 10% of the nation’s energy consumption in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Admin. But a Clean Power Plan from the EPA, which is locked in a federal court debate but expected to be upheld, would slash carbon pollution in the power sector in 2030 by 32% from 2005 levels.
Zero-emission renewable sources play a key role in the national plan, along with pollution reductions at coal-fired plants and increased use of natural-gas plants.
States already are acting independently. California employs one of the country’s most ambitious plans, which calls for energy providers to raise their mix of renewable sources to 33% by 2020.
Data from the NREL suggests renewable sources could generate as much as 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 using today’s technologies.
But just like FCEVs, heightened use of renewable energy faces a number of challenges. For starters, they are unreliable. Put simply, the sun does not shine, and the wind does not blow 24 hours per day.
The intermittent reliability of renewable energy disrupts the performance of electrical grids, which seek a balance between generation and demand, a tricky harmony that today often leads power providers to pay wind- and solar-farm operators to cap production because there’s no customer for the excess power.
For example, Hawaii produces most of its daytime electricity from wind. But grid operators often stop using wind power during overnight, off-peak hours and rely on internal-combustion generators.
Experts say one solution would be storing excess electricity from renewable sources for future use. Batteries are one option, but they are expensive.
The NREL offers another option: turn the excess renewable energy into stored hydrogen for FCEVs.
“Hydrogen storage is much simpler and cost-effective than batteries, and that’s the name of the game,” Toyota’s Scott says.
Luke Tonachel, director-Clean Vehicles and Fuels Project, Energy & Transportation Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental watchdog, says, “Technically, there’s a pathway for using renewable energy to produce hydrogen via electrolysis.
“If renewable electricity generation is built out beyond electricity demand at certain times of the day or year, then hydrogen could be produced and stored for vehicle use,” he says.
Tonachel also says the idea only works if the nation ramps up production of renewable energy, and federal initiatives such as the Clean Power Plan are adopted and proposed appliance-efficiency standards help reduce electricity demand.
According to NREL data, one kilogram of hydrogen, which is equal to a gallon of gasoline in terms of energy content, costs about $4.20 to produce during peak energy demand. Using off-peak energy, hydrogen production costs decline to $2.24 per kg. Combined with work by the DOE to improve electrolyzer technology, the cost per kg of hydrogen could fall to $1.14.
Because a fuel cell is twice as efficient as an ICE, GM’s Freese adds, the cost is equal to $0.57 per gallon of gasoline. The distribution network already exists, too, because electricity bound for electrolysis would travel through the electrical grid for delivery where it is needed.
“It doesn’t have to be trucked or piped,” Freese says. “That is a big, big advantage.”
Grid operators win, too, because they could sell stored hydrogen made from excess renewable energy instead of paying those producers to limit output, he says.
Japan and Germany also are looking closely at the hygrid concept, with the latter kicking off hydrogen production from surplus electrical energy last year in Mainz using a Siemens electrolyzer.
Toyota’s Scott admits NREL estimates look far down the road at a time when consumer expectations for technology advancements have become unrealistic.
He speaks with WardsAuto from Los Angeles as Southern California suffers through record heat and wildfires, raising pollution concerns and taxing the energy grid.
“The weather is definitely changing and people are realizing something has to be fixed,” Scott says.